- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

Jack Abramoff, the Washington lobbyist who’s pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion, has showered millions of dollars on the campaign coffers of both Republican and Democrat members of Congress. Like a kid caught with his hands in the cookie jar, many members of Congress seek to distance themselves by purging their coffers of Abramoff money.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, in reaction to Abramoff’s guilty plea, has pledged to “examine and act on any necessary changes to improve transparency and accountability for our body when it comes to lobbying.”

Whatever actions Congress takes on lobbying will be just as disappointing in ending influence-peddling as their Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as the McCain-Feingold bill. Before we allow ourselves to be bamboozled by our political leaders, we might do our own analysis to determine if the problem is money in politics or something more fundamental.

Let’s start this analysis with a question. Why do corporations, unions and other interest groups fork over millions of dollars to the campaign coffers of politicians? Is it because these groups are extraordinarily civic-minded Americans who have a deep interest in members of Congress upholding and defending the U.S. Constitution? Might it be these groups and their Washington-based lobby arms, numbering in the thousands, just love participating in the political process? Anyone answering in the affirmative to either question probably also believes storks deliver babies and there really is an Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.

A much better explanation for the millions going to the campaign coffers of Washington politicians lies in the awesome growth of government control over business, property, employment and other areas of our lives. Having such power, Washington politicians are in the position to grant favors. The greater their power to grant favors, the greater the value of influence in Congress. There’s no better influence than money.

The generic favor sought is to get Congress, under one ruse or another, to grant a privilege or right to one group of Americans that will be denied another group. A variant is to get Congress to do something that would be criminal if done privately.

Here’s just one among possibly thousands of examples. If Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) used goons and violence to stop people from buying sugar from Caribbean producers so sugar prices would rise, making it easier for ADM to sell more of its corn syrup sweetener, they would wind up in jail. If they line the coffers of congressmen, they can buy the same result without risking imprisonment. Congress simply does the dirty work by enacting sugar import quotas and tariffs.

The two most powerful congressional committees are the House Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committees, which are in charge of granting tax favors. Their members are besieged with campaign contributions. Why? A tweak here and there in the tax code can mean millions of dollars.

You ask what can be done? Campaign finance and lobby reform will only change the method of influence-peddling. If Congress did only what’s specifically enumerated in our Constitution, influence-peddling would be a nonissue: The Constitution does not authorize Congress to grant favors and special privileges.

Nearly two decades ago, during dinner with the late Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek, I asked if he could write one law that would get government out of our lives, what would that law be? Professor Hayek replied he would write a law that read: Whatever Congress does for one American it must do for all Americans. He elaborated: If Congress makes payments to one American for not raising pigs, every American not raising pigs should also receive payments.

Obviously such a law would reduce the capacity for privilege-granting by Congress and diminish influence-peddling.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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